Let go of worry through the practice of Mindfulness.
Have you ever been driving down the road only to realize you don’t remember driving through a particular intersection or driving past a specific landmark? Have you ever been engaged in a conversation with someone and then realized you haven’t been paying attention to what they are saying? Have you ever started eating a snack, taken a couple of bites, and then noticed all you had left was an empty packet in your hand? Have you ever wondered whether or not you have forgotten a routine task (e.g. Turning off the iron, taking a medication, or turning off the lights)? These are common examples of “mindlessness,” or “going on automatic pilot.” In our modern, busy lives, we constantly multi-task. It’s easy to lose awareness of the present moment as when we become lost in our efforts to juggle work, home, finances, and other conflicting demands. With regular practice, mindfulness exercises can help you to focus on the present moment and let go of ruminations and worry.
Mindfulness is for everyone from all walks of life, young or old. Mindfulness is not a religion and there are no necessary religious components to mindfulness. Anyone with any belief system can enjoy the benefits of mindfulness. Although mindfulness may have had its origins in the east, the benefits of mindfulness and meditation are now relatively mainstream and the scientific community has found data positively correlating mindfulness and meditation to stress reduction. In the last 30 years, the most widely recognized mindfulness practices have been developed and researched in the West.
Mindfulness practices can be described in many different ways. Here are some examples:
– Mindfulness is a set of skills and practices that help us to recognize when we are on autopilot and become more aware of the present moment.
– A state of active, open attention on the present.
– Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.
– Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
– Mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.
In general, these exercises help you to gain control over your mind so that your mind is not in control of you. This is actually better described as gaining control over your attention processes. What we pay attention to strengthens us. This happens whether or not it is our intention. This happens whether our thoughts are positive or negative. Most people would rather strengthen positive, healthy, hopeful thoughts than hopeless, pessimistic, and negative thoughts. Would you rather feel focused, open and relaxed? Or distracted, tight, closed, and hopeless? When practicing mindfulness, you have the strength and capability to choose the thoughts to which you pay attention. Additionally, you also have the skills to move your attention away from troubling thoughts.
Mindfulness is accomplished by engaging in activities with focused attention and repetition. Think about what you would do if you wanted to improve your golf swing. You would likely go to the driving range, attempt to focus your mind, and repeat your golf swing over and over. The entire time you would be making minor adjustments to improve your swing and make the improvements more automatic. Similarly, how would you learn to play a song on the piano? You would play the notes over and over until the song flowed effortlessly. You wouldn’t be able to do this without focused attention and repetition. The same principle applies to using mindfulness techniques to lessen your worry thoughts. The more focused attention and repetition have given to mindfulness tasks, the more likely that you will develop the skills and be able to apply them automatically.
There is more than one way to practice mindfulness, but the goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment. All mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation.
When practicing mindfulness, everyone, however much they practice, will experience thoughts creeping into their heads uninvited. This is fine! It’s just what brains do, but how we respond to these thoughts is important. If we start to think about the thought or get annoyed with ourselves for not being able to retain our focus, it stops us paying attention and takes us away from the present moment. If we just acknowledge the thought and let it go without judgment, we retain our focus on being in the present moment.
As with all new skills, the more we practice it, the easier it becomes. The more we practice mindfulness, the more we develop neuro-pathways in the brain associated with being mindful, which make it easier to be fully in the present moment.
Here are 5 quick Mindfulness exercises to get you started!
Three Mindfulness Skills
Mindful Listening: Select a new piece of music from your music collection, something you’ve never heard before but makes you wonder what it might sound like. Close your eyes and use headphones if you can. Don’t think about the genre or the artist. Instead, allow yourself to get lost in the journey of sound for the duration of the song. Allow yourself to explore the intricacies of the music.
Let your awareness climb inside the track and play among the sound waves. The idea is to just listen and allow yourself to become fully entwined with what is being played/sung, without preconception or judgment of the genre, artist, lyrics, instrumentation or its origin.
If you don’t have any music that you’ve never listened to before, turn on the radio and turn the dial until something catches your interest. If you don’t have a radio then take a moment to simply listen to the sounds in your environment.
Don’t try and determine the origin or type of sounds you hear, just listen and absorb the experience of their texture and resonance with your being. If you recognize the sound then label it with what you know it to be and move on, allowing your ears to catch new sounds.
Mindful Observation: This exercise is simple but incredibly powerful. It is designed to connect us with the beauty of the natural environment, which is easily missed when we’re rushing around.
Pick a natural organism within your immediate environment and focus on watching it for a minute or two. This could be a flower or an insect, the clouds or the moon. Don’t do anything except notice the thing you are looking at. But really notice it. Look at it as if you are seeing it for the first time.
Visually explore every aspect of this glorious organism of the natural world. Allow yourself to be consumed by its presence and possibilities. Allow your spirit to connect with its role and purpose in the world.
Allow yourself just to notice and ‘be’.
One Minute Breathing: This exercise can be done anywhere at any time, standing up or sitting down. All you have to do is focus on your breath for just one minute.
Start by breathing in and out slowly, holding your breath for a count of six once you’ve inhaled. Then breathe out slowly, letting the breath flow effortlessly out back into the atmosphere.
Naturally your mind will try and wander amidst the valleys of its thoughts, but simply notice these thoughts, let them be what they are and return to watching your breath.
Literally watch your breath with your senses as it enters your body and fills you with life, and then watch it work its way up and out of your body as the energy dissipates into the universe.
Dr. Emily VanLeeuwen is a licensed psychologist at Rejuvenate Mind-Body Wellness Center in Lees Summit, Mo. She specializes in mindfulness techniques. If you are interested in learning mindfulness skills, stress management techniques, or want to know how to cope more effectively with anxiety, Dr. Emily can help.